Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How It Made Historyby Harriet Rubin
Dante in Love is the story of the most famous journey in literature. Dante Alighieri, exiled from his home in Florence, a fugitive from justice, followed a road in 1302 that took him first to the labyrinths of hell then up the healing mountain of purgatory, and finally to paradise. He found a vision and a language that made him immortal.
Author Harriet Rubin follows Dante's path along the old Jubilee routes that linked monasteries and all roads to Rome. It is a path followed by generations of seekers -- from T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Primo Levi, to Bruce Springsteen. After the poet fled Rome for Siena he walked along the upper Arno, past La Verna, to Bibiena, to Cesena, and to the Po plain.
During his nineteen-year journey Dante wrote his "unfathomable heart song," as Thomas Carlyle called The Divine Comedy, a poem that explores the three states of the psyche. Eliot, a lifelong student of the Comedy, said, "Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them, there is no third."
Dante in Love tells the story of the High Middle Ages, a time during which the artist Giotto was the first to paint the sky blue, Francis of Assisi discovered knowledge in humility and the great doctors of the church mapped the soul and stood back to admire their cathedrals. Dante's medieval world gave birth to the foundation of modern art, faith and commerce.
Dante and his fellow artists were trying to decode God's art and in so doing unravel the double helix of creativity. We meet the painters, church builders and pilgrims from Florence to Rome to Venice and Verona who made the roads the center of the medieval world. Following Dante's route, we are inspired to undertake journeys of discovering ourselves.
In the vein of Brunelleschi's Dome, Galileo's Daughter and Wittgenstein's Poker, Dante in Love is a worldly and spiritual travelogue of the poet's travels and the journey of creativity that produced the greatest poem ever written.
Los Angeles Times
"A thoughtful and enlightening analysis of the writing of The Divine Comedy that centers on the physical and spiritual journey of its author, Dante Alighieri."
"An infectious blend of accessibility, erudition, and practical wisdom."
"Rubin's enthusiasm for her subject is contagious...a drier intellect might not have written about what, in fact, is the world's greatest poem with a pleasure so infectious that readers will want immediately to read it."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Almost a primer on how to find inspiration and motivation from Dante...It is sprinkled with compelling 'Dantean journeys,' anecdotes of poets and other figures from history who have turned to Dante in times of crisis and inspiration...an excellent meditation on Dante."
Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club
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CHAPTER 1: A Time Run by Dreamers and Their Dreams
On January 27, 1302, a courier on a deadly mission arrives in bone-chilling Rome off the wintry paths from Florence. He bears a message for Dante Alighieri. Alighieri, who is thirty-six, is not yet the great Dante, author of the poem that will become like a religion to artists and statesmen and other seekers of perfection. Alighieri is in Rome on a doomed diplomatic mission -- a lethal pattern which seems to characterize the majority of his efforts. About most things Alighieri is cautious and indirect. Though he holds strong views, he seldom acts on them. He never told the woman he most loved of his feelings for her; and now that she is dead, words are meaningless. He expresses himself in precious verses that circulate among a small circle of his friends. He has tried everything, from law to war, and from politics to teaching, with mixed results. So why is this unthreatening father of three the object of a decree that is equivalent to a hanging -- exile -- and not even singling him out for a brave act, but accusing him of barratry or breach of duty along with 359 others -- an undignified lottery. He has simply found himself on the wrong side of an old political skirmish. His death notice is inconsequential to an observer of 1302 -- it is a tree falling in the forest.
But the consequences will surprise the world: the edict will force Dante to take no other course than the pursuit of the education of his soul over the nearly two decades of brutal exile. The sentence will unsettle us more than seven hundred years later. Genius, happiness, love and vision will hereafter be measured by how Alighieri handles the awful sentence he receives this day. He will develop self-knowledge and self-mastery, brutal honesty combined with melting sweetness. Dante Alighieri represents the height and depth of a turning point in time. The years 1300-1320 are the pinnacle of the period known as the High Middle Ages, the foundation of modern commerce, art and faith. They are aptly named for the elation they inspire -- when genius ruled over laws and sometimes coursed out of control.
The essential question is: How did Dante become Dante? Why didn't his fate silence him forever, reduce him to desiccating anguish? How did a man who had been unable to express his passion reinvent the nature of love and genius? How did he reverse his failures? How does one voice become the most important voice?
Dante in Love suggests a love story, and some might expect this to be the tale of sweethearts beyond the grave: Dante and Beatrice, legendary lovers, divided by death, reunite in a poetic afterlife. In fact, it is a truer love story: that of a dispossessed soul learning the meaning of life and finding the grace to love that meaning. Attaining that kind of love depends on developing "the good of the intellect," Dante wrote.
The Divine Comedy has exerted a shaping influence on the lives of a wide range of people: poets (T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and hundreds of others), writers (George Eliot, Primo Levi, Tom Stoppard), psychologists (Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung), philosophers (David Hume, Georg Wilhelm Hegel), rock stars (Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen), as well as butchers, bakers, air force pilots and political figures. One can ask without exaggeration: How did this poet help steer the medieval world into the modern one? In our time, we may wonder, what will the modern world coalesce into, and given that to a certain extent we can author our fortune and fate, can we look to visionaries, not merely soldiers and bureaucrats, to guide us?
What follows is a tale for those who have dreamed of creating something that seems beyond them. Its purpose is not to save you a lifetime of reading one book, The Divine Comedy, but to start you on the project.
At the beginning, the roads that link Dante to his fate are the Jubilee roads which two years earlier Pope Boniface VIII had smoothed over, summoning all the world to Rome in one massive celebration for the eternal church. The poor and the lame, the rich and the mighty, had arrived by the thousands to fill Rome's streets and, better still, Boniface's coffers. All roads lead to Rome. In October 1301, Alighieri was sent there from Florence by his political party, the White Guelfs. He had been one of the party's priors in Florence for ten years, the equivalent of a junior senator. He was there to ask for Boniface's help in stopping the fighting and threats of civil war inside Florence, but the wily and ambitious pontiff set a trap for the delegation. He has bought time for his own armies to march into Florence and claim the city as his personal treasure. These were years when artistic genius seemed to stop for papal politics and all of Roman ingenuity got channeled into a grab for land and money. Florence was a prize, and Boniface wanted it. In truth, he wanted everything. Dante, drawn into the pope's web, will realize only much later that he was duped by his hopes and dreams into believing that appeals to reason might forge a peace.
As the priors were waiting to make their appeals, the pope was masterminding a change of guard in Florence to the opposition party of Black Guelfs, "guelf" being a term perhaps derived from the German word for "wolves." News of the handover of the city will reach Alighieri and his peers in the form of the decree of exile.
The decree condemns the faction of Guelfs known as Whites on charges of opposition to the pope and of having stirred up violence in Florence. It demands that Alighieri return home immediately to defend himself in a trial. Dante does not return to Florence, and on January 27, 1302, he is condemned to two years of exile, barred from holding public office and required to pay a ruinous fine of 5,000 florins within three days. On March 10, Dante's goods are ordered confiscated and he is condemned to death by burning if he should fall into Florentine hands. The Florentine fathers prefer ashes to corpses where their enemies are concerned. They are, after all, Romans at heart and as such are believers in ghosts. "Let the earth lie lightly on you" is how they say good night rather than goodbye to their freshly buried dead. As for the threat of seizure of the accused's scant remaining assets, Alighieri has already had trouble paying his bills. Confiscating his property will reduce his family -- Gemma, his wife, and their two sons and daughter -- to destitution.
The sentence against Alighieri does not seem extreme in Florence, where factionalism is just one manifestation of widespread disunity. The idea of a united Italy is unimagined in 1302. The majority of Italians have never heard the word "Italy." It is a country in which only the intellectuals live, those who read the word in the great books. Unity is a dream. Divisions exist in cities, on streets and between neighbors; hatreds are acted upon. Justice is impossible to find. Rioters run loose. The prisons have been thrown open; nobles and criminals rob, kidnap and kill. Heiresses are forced to marry impromptu suitors, and fathers compelled to sign rich settlements.
Rome, the seat of emperors and popes who believed themselves masters of the world, is in the hands of the power-hungry. When Albert of Austria named himself emperor on the death of Adolphus of Nassau in 1298, Boniface, in his rage, placed the crown on his own head, seized a sword and exclaimed, "It is I who am Caesar, it is I who am emperor, it is I who will defend the rights of the empire." In May 1347, Cola di Rienzi, a washerwoman's son born in year eleven of Dante's nineteen-year exile, became tribune of Rome. He pointed his sword to the sky and three-quarters of the globe and declared, "This and this and that too is mine."
But Florence, eternal Rome's rising competitor, is the mad and dreamy sister. Florence is gambling on the symbols of power -- banking, art, science -- rather than on armies or imperial tyrannies to rule Europe. For the next two hundred years, her dominance in literature, architecture, finance and technology will be unquestioned. The sword will become powerless against the thought and the florin.
Florence will become the most brilliant and the "most damned of Italian cities," the poet Ezra Pound wrote in the early twentieth century, complaining that "there is neither place to sit, stand or walk." An editorial in La Repubblica in 2000, seven hundred years after Boniface's Jubilee, complained that men were suffering heart attacks in growing numbers from climbing too many stairs for midday trysts, their daily jubilees: Why weren't city planners requiring landlords to install elevators? Annoyance is the city's steady pulse. She is often nasty with her proudest sons, demanding their best work and then excommunicating them or, if they stay, hanging or incinerating them.
Galileo, after lecturing about Dante's Commedia in universities throughout Italy in the 1500s, will be condemned to torture and death for holding the theory that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe. Machiavelli will be dismissed from the Medici court, sent first to prison to be stretched out on the rack, and then thrust into penury for the rest of his life. Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance freethinker who scoffed at the mysteries of faith, will be chased to Rome, where he will be burned in public, in the Campo dei Fiori. Ambition, heresy, rage -- these are virtues in the cultural temperament of Florence. The Renaissance's most dangerous ideas have precedent in Dante. But ideas alone do not sharpen Florence's edges. Three classes divide its secular life: the popolo minuto, or "little people" -- shopkeepers and artisans; the popolo grasso, or "fat people" -- wealthy employers or businessmen; and the grandi, or big shots -- the nobles. Wars are always simmering and often erupting. "The only thing that's changed in several hundred years," said one twenty-first-century Italian, "is that Lorenzo de' Medici introduced lemon trees to Italy in the 1500s."
The brawl between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines of the 1300s is more than a bit opera buffa, and even by these standards, it reaches burlesque proportions. On Easter 1215, a young married woman had flirted in public with a man not her husband. He flirted back. A vendetta was declared between Guelf and Ghibel, two rival brothers of Pistoia related to the amorous couple, and dozens of recriminations later, the fighting spun out of control.
The ancient myth of Rome's founding by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were nursed by a she-wolf, marked a violent beginning of brotherly murder. In medieval Tuscany, two rival brothers grew into two distinctive brotherhoods: the Guelfs, though mighty and great, were born as vassals; the Ghibellines, as gifted intellectuals. Their differences were like those of modern gangs: the Ghibellines wore feathers on the left side of their caps, the Guelfs on the right. At table, Ghibellines cut fruit crosswise, Guelfs straight down. Ghibellines wore white roses, and Guelfs red. But while there was room in the Ghibelline state for giants who preserved the might and prowess of ancient heroes, never in the Guelf state would there be mental room for Ghibelline brains. The extremes met in the contest of "the Sword" between Otto IV and Sicilian Frederick II -- intellectual, poet, philosopher -- who would become emperor of Rome in July 1215 after defeating Otto in the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Otto was known as a boor who managed to anger the princes with whom he came into contact, even when his edicts were wise and just. When he was dethroned, the priests forced his confession and then beat him to death with rods. Guelf and Ghibelline became synonymous with support for the pope on the one hand and the emperor on the other. The late thirteenth century was growing too intellectual for legitimate Guelf rule, so they went on the attack, supported by the pope.
The violence kept shifting, and so did the violent. The sides were least clearly marked among the brawlers. "This is the disease of Florence at work: parthenogenesis; the splitting of simple life forms," says Dante scholar John Freccero. Factions split into atoms: the Guelfs split into two opposite factions, and Dante became a Ghibelline-Guelf, or a "White," as opposed to a member of the "Black" faction. The feud sucked in every frustration, every long-simmering antagonism from politics to money to envy. Everything got expressed in the violence that followed and, thanks to the muddy ground of politics, never seemed to end.
Boccaccio said of Dante that he would have been unable to create his work if he had not been a Ghibelline, inspired by the legendary secular and intellectual light that bordered, often, on heresy. This was the price they paid: three hundred and fifty-nine White Guelfs, the intellectual aristocracy of which Dante numbered himself, were sentenced to death in 1302, but most were allowed to escape into exile. Fourteen hundred houses were destroyed, leaving the center of Florence in ashes.
Alighieri is no hero. He is no Aeneas chased by winds of destiny to found a new nation; he is no Paul who can organize resistance into a religion. He is to be pitied. He is gauche. He doesn't know how to behave, how to act, what to say. He often loses himself in books and ideas. If Dante thought he could survive on his wits alone outside of Florence as he had inside the city, he would have been the only one to place a bet. At the time of his exile, he is a second-rate poet, the author of some ballads and one book, La Vita Nuova, which few would remember had he not written the Comedy. The Vita Nuova is written in a sentimental style typical of its time. It reminds modern readers of the damp allegories of John Bunyan's Christian sweating his way through the Valley of Death. An indifferent provider for his family, a diplomat whose strong suit is not diplomacy and a love poet who never professed his love: now he adds fugitive to his résumé. Following the order of the decree, he leaves Rome, we don't know how or exactly when. But he takes cover in Siena, a mighty rival of Florence, in whose narrow and crooked streets he would be safe. There he plots with his fellow exiles how they might defy the pope and return to Florence. When they cannot agree on an approach, Alighieri splits off from the pack.
Exile is the death of identity. This death is as real as actual death. Home, career, history: all that defines a man suddenly seems an illusion. Even his age of thirty-six years seems untethered by certainty. Some days on the open road, he must feel as unsure as a ten-year-old; other days as weak as an old man of a hundred.
Exile is the punishment reserved for the largest transgressions. Cities were walled to protect against madmen, beasts, enemies and even some of the ravages of weather. The world was a frightening place. The men and women of the time were much more exposed to nature than we are, and nature was much less tamed. Nights were darker; animals, prowling and fierce. Wolves from the mountains starve in the cold and birds stick to the trees in the frost. Wanderers are vulnerable to hailstorms, and a cloudless heaven can raise a plague of beetles from the cracked dry earth. The weather was already growing disastrously colder in 1300, and the growing seasons were becoming shorter -- the first signs of economic trouble in Europe, though no one knew then of the catastrophe that loomed. The plague, forty years hence, will take a devastating toll on an already hungry population.
The exile straying from his native town in Italy in 1302 would lose his speech because there was no common language by which he could be understood. To move from one town to another less than thirty miles away called for sharp revision of attitudes and knowledge.
The roads Alighieri walked often gave way to overgrown paths, dense with briars, thick with trees hiding thieves. The paths led to swamps, where travelers would sicken and die in hours. A road might end at a rough bridge built by a hermit who lived on the charity of the passersby. Alighieri would have to have a coin for the crossing. Adept travelers would not leave home without a hen or two under their arm, or a flagon of homemade wine to use for tariffs. If the tolls were high, they would have to retrace their steps home and come back with a pig or calf.
For the next five of his nineteen years in exile, it will be as if Dante Alighieri, like the ancient Roman wanderer Ethico, had vanished into the bleak mountain fastness. The road he took from Rome was the road by which hordes of boys and girls in 1212, nearly ninety years earlier, had poured into Italy, seized with a blind and passionate fanaticism known as the Children's Crusade -- ill-starred youngsters moving to their inevitable destruction. His epic life now begins. Dante -- from this point he needs only one name -- will live at large, "begging my life," as he said. "How many pairs of sandals did he wear out on the narrow goat paths of Italy?" the prisoner-poet Osip Mandelstam wondered from inside his Stalinist gulag, where his own shoes were confiscated.
Leaving the company of his fellow exiles in Siena, Dante walked northward alone, up the upper Arno valley past Sabbiano and Rassina, past La Verna, where St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata, to Bibbiena, to the Passo dei Mandrioli down to Castrum Balnei (now Bagno di Romagna), place of healing waters, to Cesena at the edge of the wide Po plain, and then on to the sanctified hermitage of Camaldoli. He will eventually travel as far as France, Venice and perhaps even Oxford, England -- scholar Paget Toynbee speculates. In Paris, Dante studied metaphysics at the University of Paris, where Abelard met his two great loves, ideas and Héloïse, and aspired to a third, the love of God. The exact whereabouts of a fugitive who effectively evaded the law in the fourteenth century are impossible to trace. But we know approximately where Dante traveled by what he records in the Comedy and by a few eyewitness reports published a generation after his death.
Those places will assume a mythic character to generations of travelers ever after. Dante's Verona is the Verona of Romeo and Juliet: in Purgatorio 6, he writes as if he knew the Montecchi (the Montagues) and Cappelletti (the Capulets). His Verona is a home in Hell for his old teacher, Brunetto Latini. Venice is even lower, in the boiling pits of the deceivers (Inferno 21.7-18). Six hundred years later, Thomas Mann's Aschenbach will find a room at the Lido and fall in love with a beautiful young boy, a Beatrice-like character, a figure of eternal youth, to whom he never speaks. Dante's voice echoes in these cities.
Sometimes Dante is welcomed by friends, but more often he heads to the center of the town, hangs his hat on a post and hopes some stranger will pick it up. The custom is that whoever takes a journeyer's hat promises him a night's free lodging, sometimes in a barn where he must lie beside students, merchants or illiterate vagabonds and also the cows. Peasants reported to Bruni, a fifteenth-century biographer, that Dante often spent days looking down at the river while writing, they assumed, a book on the nature of fish.
Food was another matter. Not until he was the guest of wealthy patrons sporadically over the first decade of exile did Dante slake his hunger with pasta, chopped liver or pigeon. More likely his stomach was only washed with water and bean or squash soup poured over dried bread. Fresh bread was expensive. Tomatoes, which modern travelers think of as quintessentially Italian, were not eaten until the sixteenth century, and the Tuscans were the first Europeans to take the risk because, cut open, the inner pulp had the appearance of the cross. Dante will rue the salty bread of strangers. His wants seemed to be fed by petty thievery of his hosts -- not money, but a pen or a knife.
Biking through Tuscany or sipping limoncello under Tuscan or Umbrian skies today, one cannot imagine Dante's fate as Hell, which is what he calls it. The modern wayfarer shares perhaps only one quality with Dante: today one is not on the march but is alienated from oneself. Settled in one place, one commonly wants to be in another. We are restless. The philosopher George Santayana, imagining Dante's exile, wrote:
What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world? Locomotion -- the privilege of animals -- is perhaps the key to intelligence. The roots of vegetables (which Aristostle says are their mouths) attach them fatally to the ground and they are condemned like leeks to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them at the particular spot where they happen to be stuck.
In animals the power of locomotion changes all this pale experience into a life of passion; and it is on passion, although we anemic philosophers are apt to forget it, that intelligence is grasped.
Pope Gregory the Great, who lived from 540 until 604, said that the earth is like a hotel bed, a place to rest the body for a brief night. By "brief night," he meant a lifetime as measured by eternity. But he also meant that to make yourself a stranger to the world is to expect nothing but perfection. To wander constantly is to expect to find something more somewhere else: a paradise, maybe, or the secrets of life. Gregory believed one has to make oneself a stranger to the world, to refuse all the earth has to offer, to move upward and become a true citizen of heaven. The exile can easily feel he is a deposed king, someone special, a Lear looking to regain his rightful throne.
And yet, Dante's election to exile is also gratuitous, a gift from on high. Out of this tragedy, he can feel he is like a god, as solitary, vain and as despairing. Dante looks for cover of darkness, the source of light -- the same as God. Both hide. Out of his loss, Dante discovers a kind of creative force he might never have known he possessed. He finds the path to his creative genius by placing the ego second to a larger talent or energy some call nature, some call the Muse and some call God. He doesn't arrive at "resolution." He masters poetry and what was considered in his time vision. Dante could have returned to Florence with the city's permission later in his exile. He chose to remain in exile. What was he seeking?
The rational world wasn't enough. What he discovered, like the great thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas before him, was that absolutely rigorous argument can lead to mutually exclusive positions. Examining the light of stars, for example, as proof of God's existence, one eventually discovers that light behaves according to scientific principles, and God recedes from view. In 1300, Dante had experienced the death of his closest friend and mentor Guido Cavalcanti, a death he may have felt he caused by sending Cavalcanti into his own exile in one of his only acts of political power. Cavalcanti's death had followed soon after the death of the young woman Dante loved.
Dante decided reason meant nothing and he shifted to a different basis of knowledge. He remembered that there were certain things he couldn't say to Beatrice while she was alive. He felt that to say them would sound petty or untrue. Knowledge and faith -- on which he had relied -- couldn't capture what he felt. How could he express his love for her -- or his guilt over Guido -- without lapsing into cliché?
Every schoolchild knows that Beatrice is the goddess in Dante's imagination. But who was she? If Dante never spoke a word to her and she merely greeted him in La Vita Nuova, we ought to wonder why this love drove him and sustained him. Was she desirable because she was unattainable? But Dante "attained" her -- loving her more deeply than most lovers can claim. He falls for her when she is a girl of nine and he a boy of ten. "Dark eros" even the most forgiving reader must charge him with. But he is nothing if not delicate, so much so that he never approaches her. Only their eyes meet. During the High Middle Ages, lovers cared more about contemplating their beloved object than about experiencing the feelings and sensations of the union. "Che fa tremar di chiaritate l'are," writes Cavalcanti -- she "who makes the air all tremulous with light." One expected to find God in the eyes of one's beloved.
Beatrice Portinari was a well-to-do young woman whom Dante saw first as she was leaving a church, Florence's now famous La Badia, whose services overflow with seekers of the Dante-Beatrice magic. Beatrice's father was the Tuscan ambassador to France. At eighteen, she married Simone di Bardi, a son of the Bardi clan, one of the mighty banking families that loaned vast sums to kings and popes and brought the insurance industry to Italy when they began accepting risks on shipments of cloth. The family built the Bardi Chapel in Florence and commissioned Giotto to paint frescoes of the life of St. Francis in it. Dante will consign another of the Florentine bankers, Enrico Scrovegni, to that seventh circle of hell, suggesting his double dismay over Beatrice's marriage and her mate.
After Beatrice married, Dante married Gemma Donati; their contract was drawn in 1277, and the actual marriage took place in 1285. The names are clues to their characters: Gemma -- gems, earthly artistry which all desire for their beauty and value. But Beatrice is blessedness, grace, that which resists time's transformations. For many years, scholars assumed Dante meant Beatrice with a small b, until evidence was found establishing her as a historical figure.
Beatrice died at twenty-three in 1290 and Dante never stopped grieving for her. His exile will gain meaning when he realizes he can master loss and see her again. Memory holds the dead in our minds, but Dante discovers how to unseal these images so that the dead live for him. Having been stuck in a dolce stil nuovo habit of thinking -- love as sweetness and suffering, the philosophy of the troubadour poets which he imbibed -- he converted his exile into a search for new depths in language and experience. Poets say love and words can reverse failure and loss; Dante discovered how. His method is revealed to those who walk his hells and purgatories and find paradise. It is why Dante, though considered a Catholic poet, has as his greatest converts artists who have reached the end of technique and are eager to discover a new depth in the soul. Art without artifice: the Commedia makes the human being the text or canvas or song, and shows how one can oneself be revised. The artist, not the art, is revised.
The period we shall be observing most closely -- as far back as 1290 and forward to 1321 -- is on the cusp of the High Middle Ages. These are the last years of youthful intoxication that young men experienced walking from Africa to Laon to Bologna searching for instruction into the meaning of life and apprenticing themselves to debaters in monasteries and cathedral schools, where the arts of memorization, meditation, sacred geometry, alchemy and faith drew forth stupendous art and discoveries. That had begun a hundred years earlier. Dante represents the beginning of a shift in the history of creativity: his is a time somewhat distanced from experience, exuberant still, but largely unfolding in the immortal space of the imagination, of allegory or symbolic meaning. With his peers, the products of the imagination take on the gravitas of age and experience. These three decades represent the height of the imagination, the creative life sandwiched between the Middle Ages and the Black Death.
The Middle Ages, roughly the period from a.d. 476 to 1492, have been described as a thousand years without a bath. The world was dark, the wars constant. By 1100, the population was booming and so were commerce, art and technology. The next two hundred years would be what historians call the High Middle Ages. The English Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton referred to them as "the Naissance, of which the Renaissance was a mere Relapse by comparison." Then a new century was born in 1300. Individualism flourished in such forms as paintings, literature, commerce, wealth and medicine. The culture reached a height and unity of purpose that some believe has never been repeated. From 1320 on, the economy stopped growing; bankruptcies increased; people starved. By the middle of the century, the Plague will have destroyed two-thirds of all Italy: 70 percent of the population of Venice and Genoa, for example. But until then, the spiritual and the physical are joined in an explosion of creativity. Gone are the legions of quibblers locked in relentless dispute. By the early 1300s, art and technology, banking and nation-building, individualism and faith, joined with results that still resonate. The modern world is born in the High Middle Ages, and it is not that medievals were modern, but that we think medievally.
"The Indian Summer of civilization," as Princeton University art historian Richard Krautheimer called it, was a time governed by dreamers and dreams. "Indian Summer" suggests a period when every color is present: a last deep gasp that cannot endure. Nature doesn't favor pinnacles, and there were seeds of destruction. The High Middle Ages are the root of all our contemporary "hot" problems, and "it is not surprising," says the Italian writer Umberto Eco, that "we go back to that period every time we ask about our origins." There was conflict between church and state. Trade unions were formed; the technological transformation of labor made new demands on a tradition-bound populace. Major conflicts such as the Crusades ceased, but negotiation -- "war waged with kisses" -- took its place. Feudal life was not over.
Still, in the spectacular three decades, poets are the visionaries. The hunger is not yet largely for gold and glitter, but the desire to know the secrets of the world. It is not the darkness of ignorance that holds people, but that of the imagination commanding reality. People's minds are "almost constantly attentive to all manner of signs, dreams or hallucinations. No psychoanalyst has ever examined dreams more earnestly than the monks of the 11th or 12th century," according to historian Marc Bloch. There is almost no line between hallucination and sight. By 1300, the difference was beginning to assert itself. The clash between thought and action, love and spirit, called for a new unity.
Dante made himself the messenger of these enormous changes, absorbing them, articulating them in a new literary language -- Italian -- that the masses of his time who didn't know Latin could understand. He wanted to create a new language made of noble or courtly speech that might unify people beyond the limits of the thirty-six local dialects, according to Dante's count, which bred misunderstanding and factionalism as well as hideous sounds -- his own Tuscan dialect he condemns as "obtuse and degraded." The period hoists him to tremendous heights of creativity, and he maps his climb in the Comedy. As Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is about the birth of the race, the Divine Comedy is about the genesis of the individual with the force of a whole race and its history behind him.
Which Dante are we talking about: the man, or the fugitive-pilgrim in a work called the Divine Comedy? Mostly we will consider Dante's two voices the same, asserting that the exile could say true things only under the safe guise of a story.
When Dante died in 1321, the city fathers of Florence tried to bring his now valuable bones back home. As the famous author of the Inferno, the most-talked-about canticle, Dante had refused to return to Florence, which he was invited to do in 1315. Later several attempts were made to steal back his corpse from his grave in Ravenna, where he finally settled, and rebury it in his native city. The thieves were foiled each time.
But back in 1302, he could go to Hell on his own, and so he did. Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso: these are the three canticles or episodes that comprise the Commedia. More than 14,000 lines -- or "facets," said Mandelstam, imaging an "exact" and monstrous crystal -- make up this poem that tracks the education of a soul: Dante's and ours. He transformed himself from pilgrim or searcher, lost in his own subjectivity and questions, into the universal poet, certain and transcendent. By finding his way through Hell, sometimes called the traps of the ego, Dante graduates to Purgatory to learn the art of loss. From there, he undergoes many tests until he is admitted into the mind of God, from whose perspective he can see the meaning of sorrow and joy and everything in between.
Charles Dickens will offer his own story of life's comedy in A Christmas Carol. In his version of the Inferno, "Christmas Past," Ebenezer Scrooge confronts his miserly ways. In "Christmas Present," or Purgatory, he repairs his past; and in "Christmas Future," Paradise, he delights in the pleasure of a revised and newly well spent life. Dante had been a Scrooge with his own life and talent -- until that cold day in Rome when his future finally caught up with him.
Copyright © 2004 by Harriet Rubin
Meet the Author
Harriet Rubin was the founder of Doubleday Currency and has published dozens of bestsellers. She is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, which has been translated into twenty-three languages. She is on USA TODAY's editorial board and is a consultant to media companies. She currently lives in Manhattan and Portland, Oregon.
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